how managers should communicate decisions they don’t agree with

A reader writes:

I’m a unit head at a government agency that is having some serious financial and managerial turmoil. The powers that be are contemplating a decision that could have a very negative impact on my area, and our manager called all his units to discuss the issue. He explained the case he would make, but also said repeatedly, “I’ll do my best, but you know that the boss will end up doing whatever the boss wants, and there’s nothing I can really do to stop it.” Which is historically true, but was also incredibly demoralizing to hear.

This got me thinking about what to tell my unit about this situation, or similar ones in the future. There’s got to be a better way to say that you’ll fight for them, right? And if you lose the fight, how do you communicate that to your team without making them bitter about upper administration?

Ugh, yeah, your manager mishandled this.

When you’re a manager, you’re part of your company’s management team, and part of that job is to represent that team to your staff, even when you don’t agree with its decisions.

That doesn’t mean that you have to become a Stepford Wife who smiles blankly and spouts a bland, rehearsed party line. But it does mean that you need to talk about management decisions with respect, and to the extent that you can, help your team understand the reasoning for them. Presenting the people above you as volatile, mystifying, or inept undermines them and will destroy your own bosses’ trust in you if they find out that you’re doing it. It’ll also create resentment and some serious cynicism on your team, and that will impact your own effectiveness in the long run.

In this case, it would have been better for your boss to have said something like, “I’m going to stress our concerns about X and Y and will especially emphasize Z, but there are other factors that the agency will have to consider as well, and it’s possible that those could end up trumping our concerns. If that happens, I’ll be thinking about A, B, and C to try to mitigate the impact on us. I expect to hear something definitive by the end of next month, and I’ll keep you posted.”

And then, if the ultimate decision does go against your team, your manager would ideally explain the other factors that ended up being considered more important. And he can acknowledge that that sucks for your team at the same time that he acknowledges that the organization had to factor in considerations beyond that.

One caveat to all this: There are cases where it’s so widely understood that a higher-up is out of her gourd or that a policy has no redeeming value that you’ll lose credibility if you don’t acknowledge that. Even then, though, the way you talk about it matters: Calm and matter-of-fact, yes. Openly disgusted, no.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

    1. OfficePrincess*

      “Let’s just humor him and wait it out until he changes his mind again or finds something else to focus on” sound familiar to anyone else?

      1. Dirk Gently*

        At one former workplace, we used to talk about the boss’s attention as The Eye of Sauron. Sometimes you just gotta start a battle to draw that eye away from the really important mission…

        1. OfficePrincess*

          That’s perfect. When his attention is focused on something else, we relax our shoulders for a bit, knowing that it’s only a matter of time until we are back in the spotlight. The day I went from being given too much responsibility to needing to take on more and back over the course of an hour will go down in the record books.

    2. Jerzy*

      My old bosses boss was someone who I often had meetings with as well, and it was clear he was unable to hold a piece of information in his head for more than 5 minutes. He asked the same questions over and over, like asking how he could help us get some project done. We’d tell him exactly what we need, and, often within the same meeting, he would ask that same question again, all while doodling in his notebook.

      He was also VERY ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT EVERYTHING! He’s a real-live Buddy the Elf, and literally, everything is his FAVORITE!

      We’d joke about him running around his office to “Yakkity Sax,” which considerably helped build up some of the morale having him in charge brought down.

        1. Jerzy*

          My boss at the time even had it ready to go on his iPad, so if things were starting to get really tense (especially if the stress was being caused by “Buddy”) he would close the door to his office and play it.

      1. So Very Anonymous*

        I worked with someone ages ago who was such a slick, shapeshiftery person that every time he opened his mouth I’d hear the beginning and the opening lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil.” YOW! Please allow me to introduce myself…

  1. Cat*

    I’ve never worked in government, but have always gotten the impression that, at least in the federal government, employees are much more willing to openly criticize higher ups than are those of us in the private sector.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      I don’t know about the federal government, but Alison’s caveat is extremely true for public schools. In some districts, teachers have completely given up on state and district leadership.

        1. OP*

          My situation is very similar to higher ed; there is plenty of very public grousing throughout the organization. But my team is great and they don’t need to know all the dirty laundry. Alison’s suggested script gives me some ideas.

      1. Lyssa*

        Ugh, I remember several of my high school teachers being openly contemptuous about the administration in class, particularly as they approached retirement. It was very unprofessional and downright embarrassing for them, IMO. Whatever your concerns are, don’t lay them on a bunch of teenagers during class time.

          1. Honeybee*

            Same. Some of my favorite teachers would just roll their eyes or give a pointed look when confronted with the incompetent administrators. They never openly talked about them – which is smart, because teenagers are unpredictable. But we knew how they felt – and honestly, we felt the same way, because the worst administrators were usually equally terrible to the teachers and the students.

      2. MegEB*

        I have several friends and family members who are teachers, and I’ve gotten the distinct impression that teachers are pretty much constantly at odds with the administration no matter where you go.

    2. fposte*

      I try to focus on the “Here’s what we can control” part of it. To me, government is like this aerial dogfight overhead–it’s scary and it has implications for what I’m doing but I’m not in it–and on a day to day basis it’s who I’m sharing office space with and serving that matters, and that’s what I’m giving my energy to.

      1. OP*

        That final line resonates with me. If I can keep everyone focused on the amazing things we do in our office, they may not become as cynical about administrator nonsense that doesn’t necessarily affect them.

    3. Henrietta Gondorf*

      I work for the DoD (Army), and the culture of how people are allowed to complain is very different than other workplaces.

      Also, because of how they hire and promote (this is particularly true of military personnel), they are now more sensitive to the fact that they don’t always get the right people or configuration of people into certain roles and (sometimes) try to be responsive to that.

      1. jamlady*

        Interesting that you say this – I’m a contractor with the army and the department I’m in is still so concerned with holding onto the older generation of vets (who, by this point, barely show up let alone do their job) that they’re just now actually realizing there are major (legal) problems we’re running into due to the years of extremely high turnover of new blood and, as of late, being majorly understaffed. No one is getting the job done (and the ones that do are getting run off by the hostility of the older generation of severely militant veterans).

    4. AnotherFed*

      Where I am, there’s a big difference between what you can say publicly from what you say privately, and if the Big Batshit Crazy Boss is Congress, we have absolutely no trouble saying (even at an all hands meeting) “this is stupid, but Congress helped and so it’s what we have.” But expressing any opinions on any specific elected officials to the general public is a hell no!

    5. anonymous please*

      I work in a university library. We are told to celebrate banned books week and advocate for free speech. And we are also told that if we speak badly of the library, it will be grounds for termination.

  2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    I had a bad habit of saying “It is what it is” in my first supervisor position when it came to policy or handed down decisions.

    It turns out my team did want to know when I had shared concerns or potential pitfalls. Such a rookie mistake.

    1. Jerzy*

      I had a manager who used that phrase when I complained to her about the daily harassment I was enduring by a co-worker who she clearly favored.

      She was an awful manager, and not a very nice person, either.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        That’s just horrible.

        I was using it in response to things like, “we are all moving to X project management software from Y” or “Management has asked that we not park in the front row to save more spots for visitors.”

        I always thought the phrase was neutral but after seeing my employees and my boss react negatively (he saw at as nonchalant) and have really worked hard to cut it out of my vocabulary.

    2. quietone*

      I actively dislike that phrase. To me it means “its wrong but we don’t care and aren’t going to fix it”

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        My mom had always used it, so I never thought anything of it…but the more people I talk to the more I hear that they actively dislike it!

        1. Kadee*

          It probably depends on how it’s being applied. If it’s about the serenity of accepting what you cannot change, it’s a reasonable statement to make and has some semblance of strength to it by refusing to participate in a pointless battle and choosing to just move on.

          There are those that use it as mentioned above, essentially acknowledging there’s a problem and that nothing is going to be done about it and you might as well accept it. That’s when it can be infuriating.

          I’ll assume your mother is in the first camp. :)

          1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

            My mom was cautioned me to “pick my battles” pretty regularly, so you’re right about the way she used it.

            And that’s how I always intended it with employees, because I was *definitely* picking my battles with management. But without an explanation, I can see how it came off as callous.

      2. Jerzy*

        I have the same icky feeling around that phrase (probably due to the awful manager I mention above). To me it always sounded like, “whatever, deal with it.”

        I’m sure a lot of people who use it do so thinking it’s a neutral way of saying “this is the situation, regardless of if we like it.”

    3. Not So NewReader*

      To me “it is what it is” means defeat. ” We could have any of ten other ideas that were great but we have to go with the lousiest idea available. It is what it is.”

      1. Anna*

        That’s what I get from it, too. Like whoever says it will ALWAYS follow it up with a deep sigh.

  3. Serin*

    On the flip side, I used to have a boss who would never tell, verbally or nonverbally, when he was communicating a fiat from upper management that he didn’t agree with — even when he was asking us to do things that went against his previously stated preferences. That used to drive me nuts; I don’t think you have to be unsubordinate to say, “You all know that I prefer X, and I tried to make the case for it, but for the following reasons the decision was made to go with Y instead.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      When a boss does not explain why she is contradicting herself that can lead to some serious problems.

  4. Turanga Leela*

    I’ve sometimes had to communicate decisions I didn’t agree with to organizational partners or contractors, and it was one of the hardest things I had to learn as a professional. The turning point was realizing that I wasn’t speaking as myself, I was representing my organization, and I didn’t get to make the organizational decisions.

    In case this is helpful for anyone, my key steps are:
    1) Swallow my own frustration.
    2) Clarify with my higher-ups exactly what the new policy is.
    3) Convey the policy and the reasoning behind it in a friendly way. Say “we” a lot, as in “We were concerned that the previous approach wouldn’t protect the interests of X constituency.”
    4) If applicable, apologize for creating more work, being confusing earlier, etc. Do not apologize for the new policy itself.

  5. Whassername*

    But how do you communicate the truly inept decisions or policies without seeming either ‘disrespectful’ or less competent yourself?

    I’m specifically thinking about a previous (job)life in an IT department that implemented a huge HR management system- a key feature of which was the ability to enter your own time off, which then routes to your manager for approval and sign off.

    But the IT group, and the IT group alone, then stuck with the existing time consuming, manual process that involved printing out time sheets, signing them, circulating them physically through the approval chain, then having them all entered by one approved person. As far as I was able to figure it out, the motivation was one of these three things:

    1. Trust issues – as if letting people enter and approve electronically would result in rampant PTO abuse
    2. Busy work for that one headcount
    3. A deep and all consuming hatred of trees

    Management was sort of…neutrally supportive and tended to change the subject when this was questioned or commented on…and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt the whole thing really hurt our credibility. An acknowledgment that the whole thing was ridiculous and a little insulting would’ve been nice from my perspective.

    1. Newbie in Canada*

      We currently have this same system. The electronic method came in 2 years ago to replace the admin person having to write up timesheets…but then they still had her doing it “to ensure the program isn’t flawed”.

      Yeah. It’s been two years. Now we have to do the process twice.


      1. College Career Counselor*

        A friend of mine used to work for a Big 5 consulting firm that worked with all kinds of client companies and organizations (early/mid-1990s, but still) to set up electronic systems to handle workflow, information, payroll, etc. My friend had to pick up a physical check every two weeks and take it to the bank to deposit it because the Big 5 consulting firm didn’t have direct deposit as an option for its employees. That’s right, the efficiency mavens were unable to pull the trigger on implementing their own recommendations in-house. My understanding was that a senior partner at the time “didn’t trust” electronic deposit.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Over a decade ago, I did not sign up for direct deposit with one particular company. I had used direct deposit in the past, but opted not to with this firm because…. they would pass bad paper. I said nothing yet I took a razzing for not having direct deposit.

          And then one day IT happened. It was pay day and anyone with direct deposit did not get paid. People had bounced checks all over, as they fully expected their pay to be in their account that day so they wrote checks. It was pretty massive as hundreds of people had not gotten paid. Then the comments changed, “You knew all along, didn’t you?” Well, yeah, kind of….

    2. Turanga Leela*

      I’d say something like, “I don’t really understand their reasoning on this. I know it’s frustrating, and it doesn’t make sense to me either, but this is the way we’ll have to do this for the foreseeable future.” And then continue to push back on it with the IT department when you have an opportunity.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have said the same thing in different situations. I felt I had to be reality based, as Alison points out toward the end. Sometimes the idea was just plain silly and other times the idea was down right insulting. I felt if I did not talk realistically about the new idea, I would just “lose” my group as my credibility would be shot, and with it, their loyalty.

        Other times I was able to cobble something together to make the poor idea work reliably and smoothly, even though it was redundant/unnecessary/etc.

    3. sophiabrooks*

      We do this too. There is actually a dedicated payroll person who now makes pdfs of all time entered and sends them to the approver. It makes me insane, but I guess at least it is “electronic” now. The only thing I can think of is that, since I work in Higher Ed and some of the approvers are Faculty, that they objected to doing “data entry”? Which makes no sense, because they submit electronic grades with no problem.

      We also have to order office supplies this way- I am an admin, and I have to gather all the faculty orders on paper, and then give them to a person who enters them and approves. I don’t even have access to the discounted prices without having someone look it up.

      This possibly wouldn’t drive me so nuts, but I transferred from a part of the University who uses the electronic system AND we are always being asked how to be more efficient and save money, and no one takes my suggestion!

      I finally decided (it has been 8 years) to just stop being angry about it, but this brought it all back!

  6. Cucumberzucchini*

    I disagree a little bit but only for truly dysfunctional/toxic environments.

    In my previous situation the higher-ups were so out-of-whack that my reputation with my staff was more important to me. In our industry and in our market the way my staff perceived me for down-the-line was more critical than how the ownership (who is not in my industry and unlikely to ever cross my path again) thought of me. If they found out I was telling it like it was, which was very unlikely, there wasn’t going to be much in the way of repercussions.

    I routinely told my staff that we were going along with what C-level executives were asking, but this wasn’t best practice nor what I would recommend. Partly for the reason I already mentioned, but also because a lot of my staff were just out of college and I didn’t want them learning the wrong things or not knowing the environment we were working in wasn’t normal.

    I think this strategy worked out well because my staff trusted me and went with the flow even when it was nuts. I think for them knowing I sympathized and was straight when them helped a lot in getting their buy-in to finish projects with crazy deadlines or bad executions.

    Of course I was in a crazy unique situation and ultimately if I was fired for following my internal moral guide.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      BTDT. The one thing that I would add is know your people. If your people are going to run to your boss with what you said then, at least say something that you could repeat directly to your boss’ face. In toxic environment this is much less of a deal than it sounds. Most people there say what they feel like saying anyway.

  7. TotesMaGoats*

    With certain employees I would dutifully tow the partly line or if I really disagreed it would be “X has decided that we are going to do Y and here’s how we’ll do that.” But with other employees it was much more “X has decided and I think this is totally a stupid thing to do but we have to do it anyway”. It was a trust factor and because I don’t want to be associated with the stupid decision. YMMV with your peeps though.

    1. I'm going to management school!*

      This has been my majority experience during the years I’ve worked at my company, at least when I’ve been working for someone that I consider to be a good manager. And – it is often easy to read between the lines and figure out where some directive is coming from.

  8. anon attorney*

    It can be very tempting to criticise upper management’s decisions to staff but I think that in the long term it damages your credibility andand is self undermining. Years ago, i managed a government team through change with many unpopular decisions, and my approach was along the lines of “X is the way we are going. Senior management think Y and Z are important. If you have concerns about X I will undertake to communicate these up the chain and feed back the response to you but for now, I need everyone to do X .

    It sucked and I eventually quit, but my team knew that while had their backs, I wasn’t going to throw the organisation under the bus either. I think when you are in this situation long term, though, it’s difficult to continue and you need to get out if you can.

    1. anon attorney*

      Sigh. The bit where I would facilitate discussion with my team about X and its impact on our work was eaten by HTML… I think it’s important to create space to do that constructively without just venting.

  9. Kadee*

    I’ve seen managers behave this way in situations where they didn’t want to deal with the backlash from their employees. “Yeah, I know it’s a bad decision and I’ll do my best to get them see the light, but you know how it goes…” It aims the anger of the employees on those higher up because, after all, it’s not like their manager doesn’t understand and empathize with them. Right? And no doubt when talking to those higher up, those same managers will flip the script and empathize with upper management over how reticent employees are to embrace change.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Oh, the memories. I had one boss that would never allow me to say, “management wants everyone to do X”. I had to present it in the first person, “I want you to do X”.
      I thought I was going to get sick to my stomach, because some of the stuff I had to say.
      But what happened next was interesting. Most of them said, “Oh, Boss is making you present it as if it is your idea, but it’s not your idea.”
      Curiosity got me. I had to ask why they said that. “Because you would never in a million years say anything that stupid. Therefore, someone is making you say that.”

      Upper management failed to realize how smart their employees actually are.

  10. DatSci*

    Alison, would it be possible to update the caveat to this answer with a script?

    I often am in the position of explaining to my team the illogical/irrational/reactionary decisions of my company’s executive team.

    I never disparage them or discuss these decisions with disgust, however it would be helpful to know what to say to my team.

    Something along the lines of, “I disagree with this decision and can’t explain why this was the decision which has been made, but we have to deal with it as best as we can.”
    However I have a feeling that will also cause disengagement amongst the staff.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I might change your wording just slightly, to this:
      “This wouldn’t be the decision that I would have made, but I wasn’t privy to all the factors that went into it and can’t say for sure what they needed to consider.”

      1. BeenThere*

        I would really love a book that contains a collection of scripts for all those hard situations in work life.

  11. AE*

    I used to have a boss who seemed to think her role was to run interference between us and her boss. She was careful not to let us have an opportunity to talk to him directly, and she would roll her eyes in meetings with us when she talked about his ideas. Sometimes she did like his ideas, but I always got the feeling she was just going along with him only as much as she had to.

    Later, I realize that her cynicism had eroded my trust in her. I wondered if she was really on my side when she said she advocated for something I wanted. If she could nod “yes” to her boss then turn around and show us she disagreed with him, what did it mean when she nodded “yes” to me?

    1. Sarahnova*

      Good point. When people show you a real facility with being two-faced, it doesn’t take long before you start wondering when they’re being two-faced with you.

    2. SevenSixOne*

      Never forget that people who will lie* to others about you are almost certainly lying to you about others.

      *or gossip, trash-talk, whatever

    3. Beezus*

      Wow. I had a boss like this years ago, and I never really put my finger on why this bugged me, but your post illuminated it so clearly.

      My favorite was the time she told me she’d go to bat for me to make sure a new sales program that I didn’t have the tools to support wouldn’t be implemented until I got the tools. It got approved anyway – she told me she was overruled. (I found out later that she skipped all the meetings and it was green-lighted without her input.) She handed it back to me and told me to figure it out, and that she’d be there to support me in whatever I needed. Evidently, “being there to support me” meant listening to my concerns before telling me to deal with it, and then acting as if the issues were a total surprise to her when things didn’t go well.

  12. Work To Rule*

    When the rules are stupid, sometimes a “work-to-rule” approach can be the best way to make your point.

    FOR EXAMPLE: About a month ago, my Big Boss implemented a work flow that could work great under ideal conditions… but conditions are only ideal for maybe an hour or two on a good day. During our busy season (which starts around late November and may last until March), this will mean a task that normally takes about five minutes would take about an hour if it even gets done at all!

    From the beginning, the team leads have pushed back and told Big Boss “you don’t understand how our day-to-day work goes; this work flow JUST DOESN’T WORK.” Big Boss just won’t hear it, though, so the team leads are going full speed ahead with his idea, knowing that it will crash and burn. The whole team’s productivity is on a fast downward spiral and Big Boss just called an all-staff meeting. I’m optimistic that the meeting is about doing away with this boneheaded work flow… fingers crossed!

  13. SL*

    Just another reason why middle management sucks. No real power to make decisions, and you get complaints from above and below.

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